States: The America that works

The Economist

Luckily, dysfunction in Washington is only one side of America’s story

“THE greatest nation on earth—the greatest nation on earth—cannot keep conducting its business by drifting from one manufactured crisis to the next. We can’t do it,” fulminated Barack Obama last month. The crisis of the moment, the “sequester” (a package of budget cuts designed to be so ghastly that Congress would pass a better version), duly came into effect on March 1st. Unless Congress agrees on an extension to its budget, the government will start to shut down on March 28th. In May the greatest nation will hit its debt ceiling; unless it is raised, Uncle Sam will soon start defaulting on his bills.

This is the America that China’s leaders laugh at, and the rest of the democratic world despairs of. Its debt is rising, its population is ageing in a budget-threatening way, its schools are mediocre by international standards, its infrastructure rickety, its regulations dense, its tax code byzantine, its immigration system hare-brained—and it has fallen from first position in the World Economic Forum’s competitiveness rankings to seventh in just four years. Last year both Mr Obama and his election opponent, Mitt Romney, complained about the American dream slipping away. Today, the country’s main businesses sit on nearly $2 trillion in cash, afraid to invest in part because corporate bosses cannot imagine any of Washington’s feuding partisans fixing anything.

Yet there is also another America, where things work. One hint comes from what those bosses like to call the real economy. Recent numbers from the jobs market and the housing sector have been quite healthy. Consumer balance-sheets are being repaired. The stockmarket has just hit a record high. Some of this is cyclical: the private sector is rebounding from the crunch. But it also reflects the fact that, beyond the District of Columbia, the rest of the country is starting to tackle some of its deeper competitive problems. Businesses and politicians are not waiting for the federal government to ride to their rescue. Instead, as our special report this week shows, they are getting to grips with the failings Congress is ignoring.

America the beautiful

One reason for optimism is that America’s inventors are as busy as they have ever been, and its entrepreneurs are seizing on their ideas with the same alacrity as always. Investment in research and development as a share of output recently matched the previous record, 2.9% of GDP, set at the height of the space race. America is home to 27 of the 30 universities that put out the most-cited scientific research—and it is still good at developing those ideas. Although many countries possess big reserves of oil and gas trapped in impermeable rocks, American businesses worked out how to free that energy and then commercialised that technology at a rapid pace; the resulting “shale gale” is now billowing the economy’s sails.

Some of the money for fracking technology came from the federal government, but the shale revolution has largely happened despite Mr Obama and his tribe of green regulators. It has been driven from the bottom up—by entrepreneurs and by states like North Dakota (see article) competing to lure in investors with notably more fervour than, say, France.

This fits a pattern. Pressed for cash, states are adopting sweeping reforms as they vie to attract investments and migrants. Louisiana and Nebraska want to abolish corporate and personal income taxes. Kansas has created a post called “the Repealer” to get rid of red tape and pays a “bounty” to high schools for every vocational qualification their students earn in certain fields; Ohio has privatised its economic-development agency; Virginia has just reformed its petrol-tax system.

In this second, can-do America, creative policymaking is being applied to the very problems Congress runs away from, like infrastructure spending. While the federal government twiddles its thumbs, states and cities, which are much shorter of cash, are coming up with new ways to raise money for roads, bridges and schools. Chicago has a special trust to drum up private funds to refurbish decrepit city buildings. Indiana has turned to privatisation to raise money for road-building.

Even education is showing some signs of change. The states are giving America’s schools their biggest overhaul in living memory. Forty-five of them are developing new curriculums. Tests are becoming more rigorous, and schools and teachers are at last being held accountable for results. Thirty-eight states have reformed teachers’ pay, tying it, in many instances, to their students’ exam results. Forty-two now allow independently managed, but government-funded, “charter schools”. It is too soon to tell what this upheaval will yield, but a long overdue shake-up is finally under way.

Stand aside and deliver

Regulation, innovation, infrastructure, education: each of these is crucial to competitiveness. Put together the small things happening in the states, and they become something rather big. That is the essence of the America that works.

And the federal government? On some occasions, it helps—federal laws were a catalyst for the education reforms—but more often Mr Obama and the squabbling Republicans seem irrelevant or obstructive. A federal law restricts tolls on motorways, for example, cutting states off from one obvious means of financing new roads. The federal tax credit for R&D must be renewed regularly, creating unnecessary uncertainty for those who invest in innovation. Congress stops talented immigrants getting into the country (and makes criminals of many who are there). Far more of America would work if Washington seized on the successful ideas in its various state laboratories: the opportunity cost of not doing so is immense.

And it could get worse. The “manufactured crises” in Washington will possibly undermine the things that work. Better schools and cheaper energy are wonderful, but if Mr Obama and Congress do nothing to curb the unaffordable growth in health and pension spending, America will still be going broke. By 2037 such entitlements will chew up 17% of GDP—an unsustainable amount. Even if the America that fails cannot get its act together to help, Mr Obama and the Republicans could at least aim not to wreck everything.

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